Cooking for the Long Haul:
Or, The Kindness of Friends, Bits and Scraps, and Chaotic Invention
Our friend Pooba – music promoter, clown, and avid fisherman – had brought us another sink full of steelhead trout and I was casting about for ways to cook up the last and biggest of them. Sara suggested I cook it in a version of the wonderful garlic and kale-laced tomato sauce I had made for pasta a few nights before. So I started with a sofrito, the Florentine base for tomato sa uces, soups, and stews. Minced garlic, carrot, onion, and, according to the recipe, celery simmered in olive oil. We had a wonderful, fragrant olive oil from hundred year old trees in Lake County. But I rarely have celery, and Macy, from Yokayo Roots Farm, who does grow celery, hasn’t been to market for a while. I do without. The carrots come from Irene’s Garden or the New Agrarian Collective, the onions and garlic are our ‘seconds’.
Then we discovered the package. My sister Eileen had mailed me a belated birthday present which I was told to open “right away.” It was a big bag of chantarelles! We speculated about where Eileen had harvested these. She and Eric just moved to Bend, Oregon this summer, and they recently bought a house. But Bend is in the rain shadow of the Cascades. Still, it’s not far over the pass on – what? Highway 20, the one that connects with 126 above the headwaters of the gorgeous MacKenzie River? – to mushroom country. Some of the chantarelles were gooey, but most were salvagable.
Dinner plans`revised, I sliced and trimmed the mushrooms and tossed them into the simmering sofrito; forget the tomato sauce. Suddenly remembering carbs, I started rice – sushi rise with a couple slices of lemon rind tossed in. The chantarelles were fragrant already – equal parts carrot, onion, and garlic seemed just right for them. The fish was too big for the pan, so I cut off the head and put it to cook in a pan of water to make fish broth; the bones would go in there eventually. The fish itself got dusted with flour from Doug Mosel’s Mendocino Grain Project – Red Fife, I think, but it’s been a while since I baked bread and so been a while since I bought Doug’s flour.
Pushing aside the mushrooms, and reserving some for the next meal, I fried the fish gently, then stuffed mushrooms around and over it, added a bit of fish broth and some good squeezes of lemon, and put a lid on. I thought about color and remembered the kale that was supposed to go in the tomato sauce. This was a week old, leftover from market by some chance, but still in good shape, Lacinato. I sliced it into slivers and stirred it in, along with a few flecks of chiltepin that Eileen had given me from her little bush in Tucson last visit, before she and Eric moved to Oregon.
Then there was that turnip lying around. It was a huge Hakurei salad turnip that had gotten away. When I harvested for market yesterday, I had to take a slice to see if these big ones were marketable. Remarkably, it was still tender and sweet, just what a Hakurei should be. So I sliced and sliced again into slivers and squeezed more lemon juice over it, a garnish for the fish.
When we talked about the original meal plan, Sara had suggested cream from Tia’s milk. Tia is from one of the last farming families in the valley, and she has A-2 Jerseys. Our daughter Thea has become her right-hand woman, and Tia is generous with us. Sara had skimmed a half-gallon jar of Tia’s milk the other day before mixing it with our goat milk to make a hybrid chevre, and the cream was getting old. But neither of us has had much experience with creamed dishes, and cream and fish sounded a little weird. Nevertheless, at the last minute, I took the chance and poured in the cream. The mushrooms loved it, the fish loved it, the rice soaked it up.
It was a dish to die for. OK, this might not be the sort of cooking we’ll be doing at the end of the world. But it is the sort of cooking we do now, a product of serendipity, chaotic invention, and the generosity of family, friends, and creatures with whom we share this good earth for a little while.
And that fish broth? The next night we used it as the base for a big pot of impromptu mushroom and veggie broth. We started a risotto, and at just the right moment sauteed leftover fish and mushrooms in more olive oil, with tomatoes and garlic and tossed them in the risotto. Another hit.